No Room at the Table 

Pantries try to keep up with Montana’s record hunger rate

Despite a booming economy throughout much of the nation, many emergency food and shelter providers in Montana report increased caseloads, especially among the elderly and the young.

“The major difference in the clientele has been a medical-health and a mental-health issue,” says Laure Pengelly, director of Missoula’s Poverello Center, which serves an array of struggling citizens. “Cuts in state programs mean they come to us in greater numbers than before, even though we can help them less.” Pengelly, like others, says the “old transient model” no longer applies to many people who are hungry, homeless or both. Low-paying jobs with no benefits and a lack of health insurance are combining to drive people out of their homes, especially within the poor’s bottom tier.

“We’re seeing more families,” she says. “It’s not a good situation for families.” Part of the problem, Pengelly explains, is that housing is so tight in Missoula. With only about 1 percent of the total dwellings available as affordable rentals, competition is extreme. And without a deposit and rent money for the first and last months, many residents, vying with students for whatever’s left, are being pushed to the edge. “The hungry in Missoula compete with another population for space,” she says.

Pengelly says that in 1999, the main center served 84,822 meals, up from 77,852 meals the previous year. This year, 45,910 meals were served through the end of June, making it likely the annual record will be broken again. Similar trends, although less dramatic, are being tracked at the group’s Joseph House, where a zoning change is being sought to expand capacity.

Cynthia Roney, director of the Missoula Food Bank, says client numbers are also increasing, with children and seniors occupying a larger niche. In 1999, she says, 45 percent of the facility’s clients were children, a figure she describes aptly as “very sad.” About 13 percent of the total were seniors. Numbers for the current year have not yet been compiled.

“Food is expensive, especially anything relatively healthy,” observes Barbara Sample, director of the Family Support Network in Billings. “The issue of hunger in Montana is huge.” The network provides food, housing, employment, home heating help, and transportation to 100 Yellowstone County families deemed high risk for abuse and neglect. Sample says about 85 percent of the program’s clients have jobs, but they can’t get ahead because of low wages and a corresponding lack of workplace benefits. “Working is good for them,” she says. “It builds their self-esteem. But it also can destroy them because they can’t make ends meet. There are more people who are poorer each year, there’s just no question. They still remain poor when they make six bucks an hour.”

Sheryle Shandy, director of the Billings Food Bank, says the number of clients served by her program in 1999 increased 22 percent over 1998 levels. This year, the number has jumped another 16 percent over last year’s figures, in part because of new senior-outreach services. In 1999, the group provided $4.5 million worth of food, of which only $93,000 worth was purchased. “We just have a really good donor base here,” she says.

“Our numbers have gone up every year for the past three years,” adds Katharine Thompson, director of the Flathead Food Bank in Kalispell, which operates a total of six food pantries in the area and provides food to migrant cherry pickers in the summer. “Underemployment is the primary problem. Costs just outstrip the income.” Thompson says about 40 percent of her operation’s clients are children.

According to a new survey conducted by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, the number of Montana households that were unable or “uncertain” of being able to acquire adequate food stayed about the same or may have increased slightly in the past two years. But between 1995-99, the national level for such households declined about 12 percent.

The survey, which involved questionnaires completed by 406 respondents across the state, also determined that American Indian households were nearly 17 percent more likely than non-Indian households to be “food insecure.”

“This measurement of food insecurity among American Indians probably understates actual levels since it is drawn from a telephone sample,” the researchers note.

Peggy Grimes, director of the Montana Food Bank Network in Missoula, says the total of food bank visits across the state increased from 484,000 in 1996 to 964,000 in 1998. The period covers the time when substantial changes were made to Montana’s public welfare system.

“We really did see a huge increase, but it’s starting to level out,” Grimes says. Nonetheless, the face of Montana’s hungry is changing, she agrees. “Food banks used to be mainly used in emergencies, for house fires and by transients,” she says. “Now food banks are serving the underemployed. That’s a real change that’s coming into play.” The network, which holds the main Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services contract for delivering commodities across the state, distributes more than 200,000 pounds of food a month to 130 agencies and nonprofit organizations.

The group also co-sponsors an annual conference on the state’s hunger problem. This year’s gathering takes place Nov. 28 in Helena. Discussions about affordable housing, job creation and children’s health and welfare are also on the agenda. Increasing public awareness about hunger and related issues is a key goal of the program, Grimes says.

“I think there’s still that stigma that people are lazy or don’t want to work,” she says, adding many people are struggling to work multiple jobs. “If people knew that, I think they’d be more understanding.”

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